Less valid complaints about not getting a tenure-track faculty position


We produce way more PhD scientists than the existing demand for tenure-track faculty positions. That’s a straight up fact that we all recognize. The corollary to this fact is that people planning to get PhD must recognize that there must be a multiplicity of careers to keep in mind while in graduate school.  (There’s a great guest post at Dynamic Ecology on this topic.)

So, I’m sympathetic to the notion that there are many excellent people out there that, on account of both deterministic and random processes, don’t land faculty positions despite a sincere and dogged pursuit of that goal. I have some colleagues whose research record and teaching skills (as well as collegiality) have merited a great position, but haven’t landed one, or who took a mighty long time to do so.

Obviously, the system is messed up in a variety of ways. I’m not going to get into that, because, really, you can find that on every other blog out there. That niche is well covered.

Tenured professors are probably in the worst position to remark on the fact that it is hard it is to get a faculty position. So, to make my point here, I’m going out on a limb, albeit a sturdy one.

I take issue with one specific variety of complaint: “I never got a faculty position because of X.”

If X is anything other than the paucity of jobs, then these statements typically rely on unsubstantiated claims, false expectations and incomplete knowledge of oneself as well as job availability.

What are the kinds of X I’ve heard over the years? All kinds of crazy stuff. Some people who don’t get a job can find all kinds of rationalizations. There isn’t a secret job czar out there preventing any search committee from picking somebody, and there’s no collusion going on among different interview committees. Some people get lots of offers, some only get one, and many don’t get any. The outcome is initially determined by what’s inside the application, and finally by how the person interviews. There is a great deal of hap involved. Very good people might not get jobs.

On this theme, here is the outrageous X statement of the week:

Discover the secret of the 17-year-cicada, but it won’t get you tenure

When I first saw the link to this post in the Scientific American Guest Blog, I was excited to finally learn the elusive secret of the periodic cicada! Clicking through, my mind spun with possibilities: Were cicadas actually Somali pirates in a past life? Were cicadas once married to a reclusive billionaire who enslaved hamsters in a miniature dungeon decorated with novelty leather goods? Are cicadas actually descended from beluga whales in a fluke of evolution? Was there some mathematical modeling combined with cytogenetics, fossil reconstructions and ultra-fine-scale radiometric dating that fully resolved the question about whether their periodicity evolved only in prime numbers?

I wasn’t even close.

It turns out the “secret” is that male periodical cicadas have a ritualized courtship routine, involving annoying whirring in a very specific fashion, that’s required to be able to access females. I think it is about as elaborate as lampyrid beetles (fireflies), though without the light show.

As far as my 10-min bibliographic search got me, I believe that this find was first published in the journal Behaviour in 2001 (pdf). It’s good work. According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited 37 times since it’s been published, which is well above the average paper (not that the number of citations directly reflects how valuable or important something is, of course). This finding is important for outreach, considering the public interest in periodical cicada emergences.

I admit, however, that I was disappointed to find out the “secret” because I was expecting something more amazing. I imagine that figuring out precisely how cicadas use their loud sounds to attract females would require some tricky timing in the field, since sex is highly seasonal. It takes 17 years of development for an individual to get to the point when it’s ready to have sex, though there’s a decent emergence, somewhere, on most years.

The dilemma of the cicada researcher isn’t that different from most scientists who study highly seasonal phenomena. I also can relate to this problem. Up until I came up for tenure, all of my data collection in a year was done in a 3 week chunk of time, not because of seasonality, but because it involved working in a distant rainforest when I wasn’t teaching. So I know how hard it is to do research while having to travel and cram your work into a short period of time.

This piece wasn’t written by John Cooley or by David Marshall, the cicada researchers who figured out the “secret,” but instead by “musician, composer, author and philosopher-naturalist” David Rothenberg. Cooley was interviewed by Rothenberg. I don’t know either of them personally, and Rothenberg is good writer. If you’re not an entomologist familiar with animal behavior and field biology, you might allow Rothenberg into tricking you into thinking that the solid and interesting research by Cooley and Marshall comprised “such a momentous discovery.”

Here’s what Rothenberg writes:

It is shocking that even after publishing numerous papers on this unique aspect of animal behavior, there is no permanent place in academy for either of them.


“Frankly I’m shocked that you guys don’t both have prestigious positions, for the remarkable cicada discoveries you’ve made.”


I’d like one of those prestigious positions, too.

Tenure-track positions are not awards for prior discoveries. They are investments into the promise of future work. Unless you have a Nobel Prize or are a member of the National Academy, you aren’t hired for what you’ve done. Universities hiring tenure-track faculty only take into account prior publications and discoveries as an indicator of what they may expect in the future. Publications don’t win you a job, they are only one prerequisite. To get a job, you need to convince others that you are capable of generating a string of publications like the ones you’ve already been able to do in the past.

I don’t want to pick on Cooley and Marshall, but since Cooley was letting Rothenberg size up his academic prestige in the Scientific American blog, then I suppose it’s okay for me to do so in this more obscure venue. In the context of the academic job market, I want to put their achievements in the perspective of my own experience.

I finished my dissertation around the same time as Cooley and Marshall, and I’ve probably taught as much as they have since we finished our dissertations. Our publication records aren’t markedly different, though if you care about those things, my h-score is only slightly higher and I’ve had a more recent papers. In terms of research citation, recognition, productivity and so on, we’re roughly on the same par, I suspect. They probably garner more media attention when there’s a big cicada emergence, like the one that prompted Rothenberg’s post.

Another difference among us is that I’m a tenured Associate Professor and that they aren’t on the tenure track. So, why is that? Is it because they’ve chosen to work on an organism that’s difficult to work with in its seasonality and longevity? That’s what Rothenberg implied. They’ve chosen a difficult research angle, and though making discoveries, they are being punished for working on a less tractable system by not getting a job. At least, that is the tacit message of the article as I read it.

Meanwhile, I have a few colleagues in mind, with a research record way more robust than myself, Cooley or Marshall. And they’re not landing faculty positions, either.

The scientists who are landing faculty positions have CVs that are ripe with potential. You look at their past performance, and you think to yourself, “this person has a really great research career ahead of them.”

Why are there so many scientific researchers, with a consistently solid though non-rockstar record, such as Cooley, who can’t land tenure-track job?

First, and obviously, faculty jobs in the sciences are very hard to get, though not as bad as in the humanities.

Second – and this is my main point in this post – they’re not applying for the jobs.

How do I know that? Isn’t that presumptuous of me? Only slightly.

Let me put this idea another way: Going through the records in my department, I can go through and find the names of everyone who applied for the job in which I am currently working, to which I applied in 2006. Is Cooley’s name in that list? Is Marshall’s name in that list?

In 2006, I applied to 91 faculty or faculty-esque jobs (like a museum), for all of which I was qualified and for many of which I was a good fit. I got a handful of interviews, and two offers. (One more offer might have been forthcoming if I continued shopping for a job.)

Is Cooley applying for 91 jobs per year?

You might be saying to yourself, “91 jobs? How could there 91 jobs in a year?” If so, then my reply is, “There are that many jobs every year. They’re just not published in Science or Nature. They’re jobs that you might think are below you. I’m in one of those jobs that might be below you. I don’t think it was advertised in Science, though it was in the Chronicle of Higher Education.”

Keep in mind that both Cooley and Marshall are generalized cicada biologists, with academic experience and publications in entomology, behavior, ecology, and evolution. There are lots of academic tenure-track jobs for which their CV is suited. Few of these jobs, however, are at research universities.

When many scientists say they can’t get a faculty position, what they often mean is, “I can’t get a faculty position that enables me to do lots of research, doesn’t require much time teaching, in a place where I wouldn’t mind living.”

Wouldn’t we all.

We are hoping to advertise for two positions in our department in the fall, and we are probably going to be open to all kinds of fields and subfields. Is Cooley applying? If he isn’t, then he doesn’t have the right to say that he can’t land a tenure-track job, and he shouldn’t enable Rothenberg to complain on his behalf.

At our university, Cooley wouldn’t be a rock star, but he’d be one of the best researchers on campus. I don’t know how many double-digit h-index scientists we have, but he’d be in a small minority.

I’m open to being wrong. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised to go back to that file cabinet in our departmental office, maybe in the basement, and see a cover letter from Cooley. (I can’t do this since I’m writing this from the field.) The university where I work is a perfectly fine full-time job that allows one to conduct academic pursuits, and both the place is gorgeous and our union ensures that we have good benefits. If it’s good enough for me, then, frankly, it should be good enough for him, because we have the same level of academic prestige (unless he’s published with a pseudonym for most of his prior work).

All kinds of academics have been taking jobs in far away places because those were the only ones they got, and this has been true for many decades. (For all I know, in a department of biology study of integrative cicada biology might be viewed as important as a department of literature might view the translation and interpretation of an Old Low Norse epic poem.)

Yes, there is a huge problem in academia, which is arguably broken, that many people are being trained for jobs that aren’t available. However, many of these complaints are coming from sources such as Rothenberg, that don’t understand what constitutes massive progress in science, and don’t have an appreciation for the breadth of tenure-track jobs available to scientists.

I bet that our open call for a “biologist” at CSU Dominguez Hills will garner perhaps couple hundred applications, and probably fewer. At the same exact moment, there will be thousands of biologists out there claiming that jobs aren’t out there.

When I do that math, then I don’t feel quite as bad for the scientists with a PhD who say that they can’t find any permanent academic job.

31 thoughts on “Less valid complaints about not getting a tenure-track faculty position

  1. When I do that math, it appears that applicants to your job – a fairly typical tenure-track position at a respectable but not prestigious non-research state university with a full-time teaching load – have about a 0.5% chance of being hired. You yourself got offers from about 1% of the applications you sent in, one of them apparently less desirable than the job you’re in now. Yes, the odds can be improved by your strategy of applying to almost 100 jobs per year, but won’t you at least admit those numbers are somewhat daunting? If the thousands of biologists out there who claim there are no available jobs added their CVs to your pool of 199 applicants who are sure to be rejected, so that the ratio of applicants-to-jobs at your department climbed from hundreds-to-one to thousands-to-one, and their individual odds of success dropped to the hundredths, rather than tenths, of one percent, how would that disprove your thesis?

    And, as you yourself point out, there are far more qualified PhDs on the market than there are jobs available, so it is an inescapable conclusion that, for thousands of biologists (and scholars in every field), it is literally true that “jobs aren’t out there”. Of course 100% of successful applicants get jobs – after collecting perhaps several hundred rejections – but a vastly larger number simply can’t get jobs because the tiny number of successful ones have filled all the places. “There aren’t jobs” has to be the explanation for the overwhelming odds against any applicant individually, whether or not it is, in fact, possible for *some* applicants to get jobs, and whether or not some applicants do not get jobs for other reasons.

    • I agree that those are entirely daunting numbers. It’s a big problem, and like everybody says, the system is broken and I don’t choose to refute that.

      My main message, underlying that point, is that most people who say that there aren’t enough jobs about there are also the same ones who aren’t applying to all of the jobs out there.

      Lots of people out there wouldn’t get jobs even if everybody applied everywhere. But, because most people do in fact not apply everywhere, suggests that most people don’t want any academic job available. People say, “I’ll take any tenure track position I can find” but then they don’t apply for any tenure track position for which they are qualified. If they did, we’d have thousands of applicants.

      If the thousands of biologists out there who claim there are no available jobs added their CVs to your pool of 199 applicants who are sure to be rejected, so that the ratio of applicants-to-jobs at your department climbed from hundreds-to-one to thousands-to-one, and their individual odds of success dropped to the hundredths, rather than tenths, of one percent, how would that disprove your thesis?

      It would disprove my thesis because, in fact, the people who say that they can’t get any job truly are correct. At this moment, they might not be. If you say that you’re well qualified for a job but you can’t get one because of X, then how could you be so sure unless you applied for them all? I would be willing to bet that the interviewee of the article that I mention would be able to land a TT job on the basis of his record and promise of future work, as long as his teaching is solid. The cicada stuff is pretty cool and it would blow most other applicants out of the water when applying to a “respectable but not prestigious non-research state university with a full-time teaching load.”

  2. At my university, which is also a non-research, high teaching load institution, we posted four open positions this past fall within my department. Two of those positions only attracted maybe 5 applicants and the other two maybe 30 to 40. The odds of getting hired here are not too bad.

    Now granted we are not located in a large city and you might have a little more trouble accessing resources than you would at an R1, but I think that the pay is decent and the stress is significantly lower. There are certainly worse ways to make use of your PhD.

  3. I have to say that, when someone tells me they’ve unlocked “the secret” of 17-year cicadas, I assume they’re about to tell me that they figured out how the 17-year periodicity evolved and is maintained. That’s the big riddle about cicadas as far as I’m concerned, and I doubt I’m alone in thinking that. I don’t think think of the “secret” of cicadas as being their mating ritual. I mean, sure, it’s cool that it’s an especially complicated ritual for an insect. And I haven’t looked at any of Cooley and Marshall’s papers, so maybe they’ve done lots of other stuff, and/or Rothenberg did a poor job of explaining what their research is about and why it’s interesting.

    Yeah, the bits of the article that you pick out really are rather silly. If the question is “How can someone who described the mating ritual of 17-year cicadas possibly not have a tenure-track job at a prestigious university?”, the answer is indeed “Umm, lots of reasons, starting with the fact that lots of other people who’ve discovered as many or more equally-interesting things don’t have tenure-track jobs at prestigious universities either.” And yeah, you’re right, the article does make Cooley look kind of bad, presumably unintentionally. He does indeed come off as naive and even a touch entitled. He seems unaware that that there are lots of people who *do* have tenure-track jobs at research universities who study stuff that’s just as risky, obscure, and difficult to study as the stuff he works on (e.g., it was pretty risky of me to try to make a career in ecology with a completely lab-based research program). He also seems unaware that there are plenty of ecologists and evolutionary biologists (again, like me!) who have in the recent past gotten tenure-track jobs at research universities despite doing cheap stuff that’s never going to bring in massive grants. And while we can’t tell what jobs he’s applied for, you’re right to raise the question of how broadly he’s been casting his job-hunting net.

    I wonder if this kind of goes back to your old post on elevator pitches a little bit. “I have discovered something unusual about the mating behavior of an organism that’s most famous for a completely different aspect of its biology” does not strike me as a great elevator pitch, for any job. But in fairness, I’m guessing it’s not the elevator pitch Cooley and Marshall themselves would use.

    And in fairness, it could well be that Cooley meant to lament the state of academia as a whole, rather than his own personal situation, and that Rothenberg just meant to use Cooley and Marshall’s plight as an illustration of the plight of academia as a whole.

    p.s. lest anyone reading my comment here thinks I sound incredibly heartless and arrogant, or thinks I’m in no position to talk since I’m tenured: I myself was once in exactly Cooley’s position:


    I actually deeply sympathize with Cooley and Marshall, and the many, many other people in the same boat. I’m very, very lucky to not be in the same boat myself. I just don’t think that anyone in that boat is entitled to feel personally slighted somehow at having ended up in that boat.

    • Rothenberg just meant to use Cooley and Marshall’s plight as an illustration of the plight of academia as a whole

      You’re probably right. Just as I used Rothenberg’s article as an illustration of the fact that many people say that they have done everything they can to get a tenure-track position when in fact they probably haven’t even applied for the vast majority of them.

      We actually probably won’t even get up to >100 applications for our positions, but I was rounding up conservatively. I think there were 40 or so applicants for the position I’m in now, if I recall hearing correctly, though the ad called for a specific subfield.

  4. I am two years into my search for a permanent position. I’ve had a number of phone interviews and one campus interview, during which neither myself nor the school were terribly impressive. That experience helped me to realize that academia at any cost is not worth it. Life is too short to take myself and my family to a university or geographic location that leaves little to be desired and I really can’t imagine finding 91 jobs a year that I am interested in and qualified for. I will continue to be selective and will continue to complain about a system that unashamedly produces far more talent than the job market can sustain, but I will also be at peace if it doesn’t work out. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work hard and be happy!

    • Sounds like a fine plan. If the system is designed to solely produce PhDs solely for professorships, then it’s obviously broken. As long as folks, like yourself, overly recognize that there are tenure-track positions for which they could be competitive but just don’t want them, this would help move the conversation forward.

      Oftentimes, candidates discover during an interview that a job that did not appear appealing while submitting an application might actually be a great job. Conversely, you can also learn while interviewing about a job for which you might be excited that it’s a stinker of a job or location. I’ve had both those experiences a number of times.

      I didn’t find all of those 91 jobs appealing when I applied, but I was open to the notion that they could be great jobs in a great place. You only really learn that kind of thing during an interview, unless you have direct prior experience with the town and institution. My litmus test was to ask myself rhetorically, “Do I think it’s even remotely possible that what I might see during an interview would make the job and location worthwhile for me, my spouse and my kid?” If the answer was yes, then I applied. Yes, I really wanted to find a new faculty position, and that was a strong motivator.

      I was entirely unthrilled about applying for my current position, which I now think is a great job. (It’s in my hometown, and at the time the last thing I wanted to do was return.) Before visiting, the university looked like the last place I ever would have wanted to work. I didn’t take the application for the job as seriously as some other ones, because the job called for a subspeciality different from my own, and because I wasn’t keen on the geography and the institution, but I got lucky and still got an interview. Both the Dean and the department showed me some very cool things, and I decided that being close to family wasn’t so bad, and that the city I was moving to live in was mighty cool.

      I’ve got a great job, and I love working at this particular university, enabling me to do my research and work with a remarkable set of students. In hindsight, I couldn’t have ever envisioned saying that at the moment I applied. (Keep in mind that I still am on the lookout for jobs that I might like even more, and given some current circumstances I am applying for those as they pop up.)

      Of course, people are free to do whatever floats their boat.

  5. This is a good post to which, unfortunately, too many people can relate. The issue is a shortage of resources (positions), really, in many ways like the shortage of funding at NSF, blah, blah, blah… Anyhow, in my experience at major research universities, a sizable minority of tenure track and tenured faculty are REALLY interested in getting a different job from the one they have currently. Also, the teaching institutions and “less desirable geographic locations” really do receive many fewer applications than major research universities in “desirable locations” and most federal positions. What does this mean? I’m not sure but I agree with your sentiment that not as many people apply for those “other” (e.g. teaching) positions as probably should and many research university positions are not as great as a lot of folks who want them, imagine them to be. I am usually a little uncomfortable discussing this topic with the job seekers, though, because I’m one of those assholes that got what he wanted (eventually), is white and male, and has a good but not great CV. That said, I applied to well over 200 jobs during my 4.5 year postdoc and got very few interviews and took my first position at a teaching university. For those currently seeking research university teaching positions it is a sad state of affairs and I empathize and sympathize with their doubts and struggles.

  6. I have no doubt that there are plenty of people not applying for various jobs because they think those jobs are beneath them. But, being queer myself, when I think of people who don’t apply to all the jobs, I also think of people whose job searches are constrained because they’re afraid to live in places where they (or in some cases their partner/spouse) could legally be discriminated against in housing or employment, where businesses could legally refuse to serve them, where they’re not considered a legal parent of their child, where their marriage isn’t recognized. I understand that a lot of queer people live happily in every state, but I still wouldn’t blame someone who constrained a job search based on this.

    I expect that there are other populations with similar concerns. If I or a family member who lived with me were Mexican-American I might be reluctant to take a job in Arizona post-SB 1070, for instance.

    This isn’t to take away from your larger point (or to suggest that this is why either Cooley or Marshall hasn’t gotten a tenure-track job), I just wanted to complicate the picture a little, since I so often hear academics suggesting that location should be an irrelevant or near-irrelevant concern in a job search.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a job advert in Science or Nature that a) I didn’t see somewhere else like University Affairs (the Canadian equivalent of the Chronicle of Higher Education), or b) was even suitable.

      I wonder if the number of applications before success, and the number of applicants per position scales by population? There have been maybe 20-30 academic jobs in Canada for which I’d be at least remotely qualified that have opened in the last 2 years. But then again, we have about 10-15% of the US population (but also only about 100 degree-granting institutions). I’ve only heard anecdotes about the number of applicants from search committee members, so I’m not in a position to look at this – Jeremy, care to take a jab? ;)

      Like Lirael, though perhaps in a more extreme case, I will not apply for jobs in the US, though I would love to end up at a liberal arts college relatively close to an ocean, because of the societal atmosphere (and, frankly, immigration and other laws) that would mean a significant decrease in my (and my family’s) standard of living. I’m not talking about cost of living, or salary, but the ability to, for example, file joint income tax, not face discrimination in employment, housing, or services, or (in 38/50 states), have our relationship recognized.

      So, had an appropriately-fitting position been one of those with 5 applicants that David mentioned above, it would not even register on my radar.

      • I see your points. My spouse’s work possibilities have some serious geographic constraints, and I wouldn’t want to live in a great variety of places in the US because of my own choices. And being near family and friends is very nice. The last time I was intensely looking for a new job, I turned down an on-site interview after I learned in the phone interview that I couldn’t have taken those job for family reasons. I wouldn’t have learned that, though, without the phone interview, which I wouldn’t have had without applying.

        I’m assuming that California is fine, unless this summer Anthony Kennedy goes full bigot like Scalia/Thomas/Alito. So, please consider us in the California State University if you’re like a tenure-track gig. We’re so coastal, that a number of people with whom I work live on or near the beach. Warm enough to swim in, and usually clean enough that you can.

        Based on the job applications we get, most people apparently put the CSU in the “undesirable job” category. I understand the geographic constraints, but in some cases, that’s code for something else. If someone applies for a job at UCLA, but not at Cal State LA, that’s not geography talking. Yet UCLA gets a jazillion more job apps than CSULA. There is a fundamental lack of honesty in some academic job seekers in which they say that they can’t get any job, but in fact are not seeking any job. (The commenters here, so far, haven’t expressed that kind of sentiment, and have been clear that they have limited their searches for a variety of reasons.)

        • Until y’all figure out your federal immigration system (and other federal programs) so that married couples can immigrate as a couple and live as a couple, I’ll be sticking around up here.

          For the record, there were 4,495 degree-granting institutions in the US in 2009-10. Canada has 98 universities (including federated colleges). But how many of those are, for example, religiously affiliated? The sheer number of institutions, plus my to-present lack of desire to work in the US means I’m largely oblivious to most places.

        • Makes total sense to me. If I wasn’t from the US, I wouldn’t want to be there either. If it weren’t for my affinity for family and friends, I wouldn’t have stuck around, either. There are many wonderful things about California, that are keeping me there, but they wouldn’t have brought me to live there if I had originated elsewhere.

        • One man’s trash is another’s treasure, I suppose. My selectivity criteria lean toward schools such as CSULA and far away from places such as UCLA, but one frustrating aspect of the job search is that my training was geared very much toward R1 jobs and I think it is hindering me. If I hadn’t thrown a fit I could have graduated without TAing a single class. As it was, I TAed a couple of times and I reached out to a local college and got to be the primary instructor for an intro bio class (which, incidentally, was the best semester of my grad career). I guess this may fall under the “if it weren’t for X” complaints of which you are not a fan, but I feel that universities with graduate programs are complicit in the employment issues that many graduates face because they tend to focus training on research even though many (most?) graduates will go on to do other things. I chose my current post-doc in large part because the PIs are supportive of my non-research interests (they negotiated with the chair to make sure that teaching would be a component of the job).

  7. David and Terry’s experiences are very similar to mine at an obscure teaching school in NYC (and in NYC we don’t have the same issues raised by Lirael of scaring off people from minority groups that may feel much more isolated in rural regions). We advertised for three positions this year, and had to cancel one search because we didn’t receive enough applications (barely a dozen and few fit the job description at all). We only managed 30-40 for the other two searches but hired good people for both.

    I had never heard of my current institution before applying but liked it well enough during the interview. Now after 6 years of good times and hard work I’m moving to a RU-H institution in the same city with much more substantial support for research. AFTDJ people (“apply for the d*** job” as is widely used on the Chronicle of Higher Ed fora)! You might be surprised at how much you like the school, and can always turn them down if it really won’t work for you.

  8. My experience with the job market in the last few years has not been that there aren’t jobs, but that the market is extremely competitive. So, sure, one strategy is just to apply for every job that even vaguely fits you. But I decided that for me that strategy was likely to be counterproductive, because applying for jobs takes a lot of time — time that could otherwise be spent bolstering my publication rate and doing other things that would increase my chances of being selected.

    So while I agree that people should absolutely consider “less prestigious” positions that will involve more teaching, I don’t agree that anybody that doesn’t apply for 90 jobs a year isn’t serious about getting a job. That’s a matter of individual cost and benefit. The question is more *how* do we go about selecting which jobs to apply for?

    I think the real issue is the one that ktalent1 raises: most of us are trained at R1 universities, in a system that sees the R1 track as the highest, most desirable one, and anything involving teaching as being a fallback position, tantamount to failure. I think it’s probably hopeless to expect professors at research universities (who may be great research mentors!) to be excellent career mentors for any other career besides their own. In my own postdoc program, which is teaching-oriented, I had a network of postdocs a year or two ahead of me to talk to about the differences between different types of schools: how to prepare for the interviews differently, how to negotiate, what to expect if I actually went there. All that was extremely helpful when I finally did get an interview and an offer at a liberal arts college. So, is there a way to create that networking for other postdocs, most of which aren’t in a program like mine?

    • I wouldn’t expect anybody to apply for that many jobs a year. It did take a lot of time, and I had a particular reason to do so and wouldn’t expect it of others. (I wouldn’t expect someone to claim that they absolutely *can’t* get any tenure track job at all, though, unless they apply widely, and seriously, for multiple years. That was a response to the silliness of the SciAm blog post about the cicada guys who made earth-shattering discoveries just *couldn’t* get a tenure-track job.)

      One of the reasons that I set up my blog was, in part, in the hope that this kind of community might develop, and in the few months it’s been around, it kind of has. There are at least a few other would-be faculty at teaching-centered campuses that are getting more exposure to that kind of job from here than from other places. It’s not enough, but I’m glad it’s something.

      And hey, congrats on the job! (You took the offer, I’m guessing!)

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Terry. I will seriously go on the job market this next season (I only applied for a handful of jobs this year–just things that I really wanted). My strategy, though, will be very much like what you described you did–apply for as much as possible at a variety of institutions. I will not limit myself to R1’s, although both my phd and postdoc advisers seem a little unhappy about this, and I’ve come to realize that this has been a problem for me and other people. We’re trained to think being at an R1 is everything–and if you’re somewhere else, well, you just haven’t made it. I think times are changing, and the younger generation is seeing the reality that there aren’t enough R1 positions, and many of them don’t want them anyway. After seeing the culture at a variety of R1’s, there are some I would rather chew my arm off than be at. There are some that seem very functional and happy as well. On the other hand, after having happy friends and colleagues at liberal arts institutions or small teaching schools, I can imagine myself happy at one as well. Of course there are those that people do not seem happy at, too. I think I could be a good fit for, and happy at, a variety of institutions. Any tips for how to tell the good from the bad? The general mood of faculty on interviews? What might be appropriate questions to ask to try and get at this on an interview?

    • I don’t have any particular wisdom about interviews that would be different from others, I think, but I do have thoughts. I think in the fall (when hopefully we are going through our own searches) I’ll be writing about this plenty. I think not getting the correct read in an interview is possible, but another thing to avoid is getting the wrong read over a few years. It takes a very long while to learn what the difference between the spoken culture and the actual culture of a campus is, and it requires a great deal of exposure. I’m only now starting to understand my current university, and I just finished my sixth year on campus.

  10. “If X is anything other than the paucity of jobs, then these statements typically rely on unsubstantiated claims, false expectations and incomplete knowledge of oneself as well as job availability.”

    Wow. I just have to take issue with this, because as far as I can see it is something that could only have been written by a white man. (I read it, and then looked at your name, and thought, hmm, Terry… but I bet he’s male. And sure enough.)

    If you have never looked at the statistics for women or people of color when it comes to tenure-track positions, especially in the sciences, then I suppose you could come out thinking as you do. But then, if you’d never even looked at such things, why would you write an article about them?

    I did my research, and even wrote a paper on it, back 15 years ago or so. It was done because I was watching an incredibly qualified and talented woman, with a PhD in physics from one of the top five programs in the US, post-doc work at one of the most prestigious institutions for such work in the US, a couple of non-tenure-track positions for which she won great praise, and an incredible drive, basically entirely lose her appetite for academia over the course of two years. (During which she averaged applying for two positions per week, if I recall correctly.)

    She eventually ended up working at Goldman Sachs as a financial strategist, and, when that became too offensive to bear, went to work at a software company instead.

    How about we take a look at the Physics department at your august organization? Now, let me see: I see 18 faculty members. One is a woman. I also see three staff members. Two are women. Oh, and the ONE female faculty member? Not tenure, not tenure track: a ‘lecturer’.

    (Hmm, and the associate professors, full professors, and professors emeritus? Five out of the six of them would appear to be white men. The non-tenure-track positions? Somewhat more mixed. Although still no women.)

    I’m sure the argument is that no women are applying, but watching my ex-girlfriend basically get thrown out of the physics good-old-boys’ club for the crime of having breasts makes me, let’s say, suspicious of that argument.

    • Nowadays, at least in my field, being female or being a member of an underrepresented group is an asset in the job market, for qualified applicants.

      Try to be a little more sensitive when accusing me of gender bias, or ethnic bias. Try reading more on the site before you jump to such a conclusion.

  11. I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in David Rothenburg’s opinion. He’s notorious in my field as being the crazy guy who plays the clarinet to humpback whales. He also did it with a bunch of naked people (see this link, NSFW: http://www.thousandmilesong.com/jamming-with-whales-in-hawaii/). He’s fully aware of the fact that playing underwater sounds to whales is illegal without a permit, and does it anyway. In my opinion, real question here is not why Cooly or Marshall didn’t get tenure track jobs, but how the heck did Rothernberg get one?

  12. I think I need to step in here and set the record straight. It’s pretty easy to toss bricks at people, but it’s also really easy in the internet age to find people and ask them what the story is. I’m not hard to find, folks. Just ask.

    David Rothenberg is a friend of mine, and I’ve had many interesting discussions with him over the years on a wide range of topics. I don’t agree with him a lot of the time, and he doesn’t agree with me. That’s perfectly fine– academia is about collegiality and discussion, and if people from disparate fields (behavioral ecology and music) can come together, toss some questions around, and maybe make some discoveries in the process, isn’t that what Academia is about?

    In some of my discussions with David Rothenberg, you bet I expressed my frustration with the “job process”– and with some of the more stunning academic vignettes I’ve witnessed of folks who have long lost sight of their purpose– to teach, learn, and build. If you were actually in my shoes, you’d do the same– and in fact, many of you are doing it right here on this forum, so going over that territory is simply preaching to the choir. You know it’s broken.

    That said, I did not write any of David’s material chronicling the trials and tribulations of finding a job in this business, I did not see any of David’s material before publication in books, papers, etc. and I did not give it my blessing. What I have seen does not really capture the whole story, but hey, he’s a friend, and I was content to let it slide. Academia is such a Kaleidoscope anyway that there are many different ways of looking at a situation. The essence is true enough– neither David Marshall nor I have jobs, careers, or whatever you want to call it. The details are just a little different, but we all secretly crave a little schadenfreude anyway….. so I wrote it off as kind of useful in its own way, no harm, no foul. To each his own, and at least it’s kind of an amusing narrative.

    As for David Marshall, he is a dear friend and colleague, and I’ve known him over half my life, through all the trials and tribulations of graduate school and beyond. He is a brilliant intellect, and it is your loss that he will never be your colleague. David was in a unique situation and never exactly sought a conventional academic position; unfortunately, he and his wife were recently the victims of a serious and life-altering arson attack, so it’s not likely that he ever will be doing so. I would ask that out of respect, please leave him out of any discussions or speculations, as none of you can imagine what it is like to be in his situation, and I should hope that you will never, ever learn.

    As for myself, perhaps someday I will write my own book. In it, I might say something to the effect that the academic job market is a bewildering, ever-shifting landscape in which advice from people who actually got jobs is suspect, because they probably can’t tell you exactly *why* they got their jobs, other than that there was a significant contribution of luck and circumstance– and if circumstance were the key, then of what use would be the advice? If I felt like giving personal detail, I would say that, at times in my life as a student, I found it somewhat disturbing to observe the strange lives and weird habits of the faculty around me; very early on, I figured out my solution to the age-old work life question. I have my own life, I have a family, I am part of a community, and I have no intention of uprooting this life to chase some nonsense vision of who knows what. I’m not looking for a tenured job at Prestigious U. I have indeed applied for many jobs– when I stopped counting, it was around 280– but I have been selective, in the sense that community and family come first. I have turned down job offers on those principles.

    That’s my back story. It’s left me floating around in adjunct-land, taking whatever I can find that is commutable (defined as <2hr from my house one way). I would venture to claim that I have probably prepped and taught more different classes at more different institutions than anybody else on this forum, with class sizes ranging from 1 to 480, in a variety of formats. I get great reviews for my teaching– and I love teaching. Research has not at any time been part of my job description, and all my publications are on my own dime and my own time– and yes, it turns out that 17-year cicadas are incredibly easy to work with, they are not esoteric, and there are papers lined up on the hard drive like planes at O'Hare (though as an adjunct, my department will not pick up page charges). Bottom line: At some point a resume like this becomes a liability: When a search committee has a pile of resumes to sort through to make a first cut, this one is just too….. different. You can just hear the questions from people who haven't been there… "Why doesn't this guy stay in one place?" "What's wrong with him that he hasn't got a job?" "Why doesn't he get grants?" (most places won't let adjuncts be PIs) "What is this guy….. nuts?" etc., and the more you keep adjuncting to buy time and stick to your principals, the more you make your resume look…..different. Different is not always perceived as "good."

    I'm getting out. I've got no health care coverage, and the bidding for adjuncts has driven the pay so low that I'd be better off taking up an expensive hobby (with few health risks). Unfortunately, turns out that a Ph.D. in organismal biology isn't a door opener, and it's taking some re-tooling to find a workable way out; in fact, I'm just a graduate student again, though this time with gray hair and in a different field altogether.

    Yes, I'm an addict– I'd take a job that was workable for us in about 30 seconds. No, things didn't quite work out the way I expected. If you think that earns me the moniker of "arrogant entitlement" then I fear the problem is yours… not mine.

Leave a Reply